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On the government shutdown

Reasons put forward in defence of the Democrats don’t stack up. Both sides are to blame.

This could be another one of those “blame the system” posts. That’s because I agree: I think America’s constitution is at fault for the current shutdown mess. But rather than ranting about how America’s constitution requires too much agreement for anything to happen, I want to look at a different question. Given how the system is, how do we know who’s at fault for the stalemate?

For this to work, the principles of the system must be an axiom, not a proposition. By that I mean, when examining how players are behaving, there is no question about whether the system is a good one. We expect only that players follow the system (or at least its spirit), not that they act “above” it. Otherwise there’d be no way for any player to know what unwritten “rules” they should heed.

What are the principles of the system? That’s a big question in itself, but most commentary seems to assume that compromise is one of them.

So here’s my first observation: defences of the Democrats’ unwillingness implicitly concede that they are, in fact, unwilling. They either argue that the Democrats have a right not to compromise, or they play with semantics, arguing that buckling even slightly on Obamacare wouldn’t be “compromise”, but something more drastic.

Here’s my second: the non-negotiable parts of both sides’ positions are incompatible. If the Republicans insist at a minimum on changes to Obamacare, and Democrats insist at a minimum on no changes, then compromises on anything other than those minimums are meaningless.

The democratic mandate
The first argument defending the Democrats is that, having won the White House and the Senate, they have a mandate to enact their policy. That’s true, but the argument holds for everyone, including House Republicans.

Those who think House Republicans should stay out of the way should consider a parallel in Australia. The newly-elected right-wing prime minister, Tony Abbott, wants to repeal the carbon tax. But left-wing parties still command a majority of the Senate. Mr Abbott has implored them to respect his “mandate” to enact his party’s manifesto. Do the Senate Greens have an obligation to abandon their own constituents’ mandate for the House majority?

The point is that a democratic mandate for one politician doesn’t nullify a democratic mandate for another. House Republicans, too, have a mandate to represent their constituents. If the electorate cared that much for Obamacare, why didn’t they elect a Democratic House majority?

Does it matter that the House constituencies are gerrymandered? It makes the system troublesome, but that’s a separate issue. Also, it’s hard to predict what would happen if the system was a good one, since it affects how and whether people would vote. So the idea that people should act for how the system should be requires at least a great deal of speculation, if not a huge lack of clarity on when politicians should put their true stances aside. Life would be perpetual second-guessing if we ignored the system in favour of how we think it should work.

The desirability of the policy
The second argument relies on normative statements about how good, bad or extreme the respective parties’ positions are. In essence, the Democrats’ position is good and rank-and-file Republicans are extreme, therefore, it is Republicans who aren’t bending, not Democrats.

I agree that Obamacare is a good policy and that its repeal or delay would be a bad one. But once you start factoring that into an assessment of compromise, you lose what compromise means. Normally “compromise” means both sides needing to give in a little. If the better side is allowed to fulfil that obligation by being themselves, then the question is not about compromise, but which side has the better policy—a huge debate in itself.

It’s not unfair to admire the Democrats for sticking by a good policy. It’s just that that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for the government shutdown. People differ over the ACA’s merits, but everyone agrees that the shutdown is the much bigger harm. If the idea is that the parties should compromise to avert a bigger calamity, then having the “better” side isn’t an excuse to stand firm.

Technical matters
It doesn’t matter that the law’s already enacted. For that to be a factor, you would have to believe that Congresses can bind future Congresses, at least partly. Normally, we accept that Congresses can repeal laws passed by previous Congresses; there’s no reason why the ACA is different.

Anyone who thinks that the Supreme Court validated the law should think again, too. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion said explicitly that “the Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act. Under the Constitution, that judgment is reserved to the people.” Constitutional doesn’t mean good.

To be clear, those aren’t reasons to support the Republicans. They’re just not relevant to anything, full stop.

Why you should blame the Republicans
I haven’t bothered to argue that rank-and-file Republicans are partly to blame. I think that’s self-evident: like the Democrats, they are asserting a position and refusing to bend on incompatible minimums.

There is one additional factor that is unprecedented and falls squarely and solely on the Republicans. Normally, you would expect a refusal to pass a budget (or continuing resolution) to be over problems with the budget (or continuing resolution). Here, the Republicans’ demands aren’t related to the budget, but the individual mandate, which isn’t at heart a matter of government spending. With that in mind, there’s certainly reason to say that Republicans are acting irresponsibly. Traditionally, the correct forum in this system would be to block directly relevant legislation, win the next elections and repeal the law through normal processes.

But gives-and-takes happen in politics happen all the time, especially in a system with as many checks and balances as America’s. And it doesn’t all of a sudden give the Democrats the right to engage in a dangerous game of chicken. We should criticise the Republicans for opposing America’s bravest healthcare reform in decades, but the government shutdown is a result of stubbornness from both sides, not just one.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam #

    Good post. One question. It’s been reasonably widely-documented that there may well be enough votes in the House to pass a clean CR, to push the fight over the ACA to another day (; Your reasoning seems contingent on House Republicans being a largely homogenous group, voting as a body against the Democrats. Does the possibility that there is a mandate in the House for the clean CR as a result of House Republicans supporting a clean CR, but that mandate is opposed by the Speaker, change the reasoning behind the argument?

    8 October 2013
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      Quite right—whenever I say “Republicans” in this post, I actually just mean the non-moderate Republicans. (I got lazy with words.)

      As for the Hastert rule, it’s an excellent question because it’s not actually a rule, just a convention. I don’t really have a strong view on it, but as you might guess, I think whatever principle is applied should be applied consistently.

      Basically I don’t think it affects the mandate argument, because I think “mandate” is governed by the system, including the election of Speaker. But Speakers (including Boehner) have been known to break the Hastert rule in exceptional circumstances, and there’s good ground to say it’s a good idea to do so here as well.

      8 October 2013
  2. Sam #

    Assuming you believe the shutdown is bad, blame is easy to direct. Have you wondered why Dems aren’t demanding left-wing concessions (higher taxes or something) in exchange for keeping the government open? It’s because Republicans believe passing a CR is a concession they should be compensated for. This implies the GOP want the govt to shut down more than the Democrats, hence they’re to blame.

    8 October 2013
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      I think my contention is that a concession demand is measured relative to the other side’s preferred position, not the status quo, since there is no claim to the status quo as the default position without a belief that Congresses can bind future Congresses.

      8 October 2013
      • Sam #

        Maybe a split government could be seen as a mandate for the status quo?

        9 October 2013
        • Chuan-Zheng #

          How so?

          9 October 2013
          • Sam #

            Ha that was me being flippant.

            Seriously though, something needs to be done about the system. I don’t know enough about how it could be changed, but here’s my outrageous idea:

            Obama and the Democrats promise to delay Obamacare until 2017 (after the next presidential election). In exchange, the Republicans agree to the following fix-the-broken-system reforms:

            – Senate filibuster abolished
            – Debt ceiling abolished
            – Continuing resolutions automatic if appropriations bills aren’t passed in time
            – All house districts immediately re-gerrymandered by an independent commission who are paid based on how proportional the house ends up

            The aim being to curb the crazy number of effective vetos and self-destruct buttons that exist in US politics. This would obviously never happen because without these crutches the Republicans would have to get back to trying to be widely electable.

            9 October 2013
  3. This post, and the entire situation makes me wonder how people felt when the Gracchii used the Tribunate Veto to force through legislation. This is effectively the same thing, using a constitutional form to force an extra-constitutional result. The question is then whether this “politiking” is something we allow in the game, or if it is a breach of some overarching rule.

    8 October 2013
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      Yep—I used the phrase “principles of the system” deliberately. I don’t think it’s enough to say it’s okay on technicalities alone. I didn’t really address the question of what those “principles” are in this post though; that’s a much longer discussion and dives into what the Framers wanted and so on! I just sort of assumed it was about compromise.

      9 October 2013

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